Japanese Journalist Held Hostage in Syria for More than 3 Years: “This is not Islam”

BBC Turkish, Nov. 10th, 2018 — Jumpei Yasuda, the freelance Japanese journalist who had been kidnapped in Syria in 2015, was released three weeks ago at the Turkish border.         

TOKYO — Jumpei Yasuda marvels at a Japanese-made video camera complete with latest gimmicks that someone uses to record him with.

Having been cut off from outside world for more than three years, he is finding it hard to adapt to a new life after his release from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — a Syrian opposition group that was initially inspired by Al Qaeda, but has since renounced its allegiance to them.

Like a child, Yasuda is learning everything from scratch, asking at some point “What day is it today?”

Yet, when the conversation turns to his days in captivity, the 44-year-old with streaks of gray hair and a thin beard remembers every date and event in great detail, thanks, in part, to a diary his captors allowed him to keep.

Jumpei Yasuda, or “Nidal” as his abductors had code-named him, was captured on June 23rd in 2015 near Idlib shortly after he crossed into Syria from Turkey. It was just six months after Kenji Goto, a Japanese video journalist who had himself entered Syria to help rescue another Japanese national, Haruna Yukawa. Both men were killed by DAESH (also known as ISIS) in 2015.  

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A photograph of the freelance journalist Jumpei Yasuda released in 2016. The handwritten note reads: “Please help. This is the last chance.” Credit: AFP

As a veteran war correspondent, Yasuda had travelled since 2002 to conflict zones like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Aceh in Indonesia. He had been kidnapped before — once in Iraq in 2004 — but had been released after three days.

This time in Syria though, things went very wrong and he was taken hostage for three years. Devastated by his son’s capture and in the hope that it will bring him good luck, his mother Sachiko folded 10,000 cranes — nearly 10 for each day of his captivity.   

His kidnappers made Yasuda appear in three videos and a photo that were released online. But the response in his home country was muted. Japanese public is somewhat weary, even critical, of what they call “self-inflicted kidnappings”.

They accuse Japanese nationals like Yasuda behaving “irresponsibly” for going into war zones despite repeated warnings from the Japanese government. (It is no suprise that on the return flight from Turkey to Japan, Yasuda would say “Returning to Japan is more stressful than going into Syria.”)

Still, Yasuda’s plight was heard at the highest level. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to help the Japanese negotiate Yasuda’s release.

Meanwhile, speaking at the Japan National Press Club on a visit to Tokyo this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed that no ransom had been paid by either Turkey or Japan for his release.      

How did you plan to enter Syria? Who helped you?

After my visit to Syria in 2012, I had stayed in touch with my Syrian contacts. There was a doctor who had migrated to Sweden since and knew people in small opposition groups. But as the conversation progressed, he became cautious and all of a sudden the contact stopped. Then there was an Islamic scholar I knew, Doctor Hassan, who had been travelling to Syria during the conflict. I was in touch with others these had introduced me to, as well. There was a particular school for Syrian refugee children in Antakya (a city in southern Turkey near Turkey-Syria border) that I had already visited and helped to bring donations from Japanese NGOs. I spoke with a Syrian teacher at this school.

The teacher had worked with the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto before. After Goto had been captured, the teacher had posted an image of himself for the campaign for Goto’s release, holding up the sign “I am Kenji Goto”. This teacher introduced me to a Syrian guide who had also guided Goto in Idlib in 2013, and had planned an online education project for children with him. This guide had connections within Ahrar al-Sham. Given that the Syrian guide had been working on an online project with Goto and had connections in the media, I felt that he was somebody whom I could work with and trust.

What was the initial plan?

The guide was from Al Adhar village (TK) in Syria very close to the Turkish border. The initial plan was to go there. But because he worked for an NGO, he himself wasn’t able to go. However, his elder brother was in high rank in the organization and would look after me instead. Once we crossed the border and entered into Syria, there would be someone to guide from there as well. We would cross the border together from the Turkish village of Karbeyaz, and the guide’s cousin would pick us up by car and take us to their hometown.

MY BIGGEST MISTAKE

What went wrong?

That night on June 22nd in 2015, we were still in Karbeyaz on the Turkish side and everything on the Syrian side was completely dark. There were also many Syrians going back and forth in this mountainous area. There was one particular family, including an elderly man and a woman with large bags, most likely refugees coming to Turkey. They were accompanied by three guides. One seemed to be guiding everyone in the area, going back and forth many times. But the other two looked like they were related to that family. These two asked me if I was trying to cross into Syria and offered to help me. At that time, Turkey-Syria border control was tight. It was a difficult time for general people like me to make the crossing themselves. Although this was a different plan from the original one, I thought someone somewhere had perhaps arranged this so I accepted the offer. That was my biggest mistake.   

How did you know you were abducted?

I crossed the border together with these three people and was taken to the car which belonged to the two who had seemed to be escorting the family back on the Turkish side.  I wasn’t blindfolded or anything once we were in their car on the Syrian side. We travelled for about 30 minutes and arrived at a bread factory. We stayed there until the early morning of the next day, June 23rd. With my bag and belongings left at the bread factory, I was moved to a farmhouse. It was at that time that I was detained and I realized that I had been captured.  

What was different about your abduction this time versus last time in Iraq in 2004?

When I was taken to this farmhouse, they had suspicion that I was acting as a spy. The first time I was taken in Iraq in 2004, my captors had again suspected that I was a spy, but had released me after three days once they confirmed that I wasn’t. However, Syria in 2015 was totally different from Iraq in 2004. I knew how the cases of Goto and James Foley (American journalist also executed by DAESH in 2014) had ended. I had cleared their suspicion of spying. But instead of releasing me, they took me to the basement of a residential home in Idlib.

LAHMAJOON (TURKISH PIZZA) WRAPPED UP IN TURKISH NEWSPAPER

How were you treated there?

They gave me proper meals like grilled chicken and so on. After a month, a TV set was moved in. I could watch it six hours everyday when there was electricity.  They brought in an English interpreter. I noticed that his mobile phone had Turkish signal. Lahmajoon (Turkish pizza) wrapped up in Turkish newspaper was also delivered. From all this, I figured out we were near Turkish border. They did tell me that they wouldn’t kill me — even if the Japanese side didn’t pay anything for my release.

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This guidebook to Turkey was the only reading material Jumpei Yasuda had when he was abducted after crossing the border into Syria in 2015. He says he read it over and over again to spend days of sometimes solitary confinement. Credit: Jumpei Yasuda

As time went by, did they start bringing other hostages?

They moved me to a third house in May 2016. At dusk on May 14th, I could hear somebody opening the gate and walking around the building. My captors in the next room stopped talking and listened in. Once they caught the man, they shouted “Genderma!” Then I heard him saying in English “This is a problem. Where will I go?” The man didn’t speak any Arabic. I believe my captors mistakenly suspected that this was somebody from Turkey investigating my presence there. I could hear them beat up the man and say that this was his punishment. He was Turkish. They kept both of us in the same house for a while. I had heard them say “What are we going to do with Nidal (my code name)?” On July 10th, they completely removed my belongings and emptied the house — something they had done before when they moved me a couple of times. They put me in a car. I thought I would be released to Turkey. But after driving some distance, I was transferred to a different car and driven off to the south.

That day, they moved me to a mountain village to the south of Idlib. It was a five-storey building with a basement, where more than 100 people were being detained. Among them, some were being tried under the Islamic Law in Syria. There were also hostages from Iran; a family from Syria; Pakistanis; a man from Canada, although I believe he wasn’t a hostage; hashish dealers, soldiers from Asad side, mercenaries, and Turkish mujahedeen.

At any point, did they threaten to convert you to Islam?

The leader in charge of this large facility said his policy was not to convert. Of the other hostages there, Iranians are Shia. I think The Syrian family was not Sunni, either; their prayer had quite a melody.  

A group of Uighurs (a Muslim ethnic group from Xinjang region oppressed by the Chinese government) was managine another, one-storey prison that they put me in before my release. They had come as groups of families to join jihad. A man with eight kids and three wives told me that they had crossed over to Vietnam. By using fake passports, they had arrived in Turkey and then crossed over to Syria. During Ramadan, I heard their women pray at the mosque. They were baking Uighur bread, which is much thicker and dense than the Arab bread “khubz”.      

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Part of the many diaries Jumpei Yasuda kept while in captivity for more than three years in Syria. Credit: Jumpei Yasuda

What happened to me and what is happening there [in Syria]…this is abuse, this is torture, this is not something connected to Islamic belief or Islam.

Tell us about the videos and photos of you that your kidnappers posted online.

The first video, where I was wearing a sweater and the scarf, was filmed on March 15th, 2016 in the second home where I was held captive. Because there had been no response from the Japanese side so far, they wanted to use this video to encourage response. In this video, I was told to read out a script which they had prepared. However, even following this, there was no response from the Japanese. After being moved to the next house, that’s when they took photographs of me, on May 23rd, 2016, wearing an orange T-shirt and holding up the sign “Please help. This is the last chance. Jumpei Yasuda.” There was again no response from Japan. It seemed to me that they were trying different tactics and methods to get ransom. If this still would not work, my hope was that they would probably give up and release me.

Why do you think they spared your life?

The fact that they never said the name of their organization in any of these videos and so on makes me wonder. The group that abducted me was not a large group [within the organization]; they were probably concerned of the name of their group being known. They could see cases of, for example, Islamic State or Al-Qaeda, when a ransom had been paid, bombings in retaliation always followed. Also, their group had until then never killed a foreigner before. So they didn’t want to appear [in the authorities’ radar] in this kind of way.

How did you realize that you were about to be released?

I had first been informed in December 2016 that I would be released. And for a while it seemed the case. However, since being taken to this large facility housing 100 hostages, I had felt that even if I was not to be killed, I could be kept there indefinitely. It was kind of a cost cutting measure on their part to move me to this prison facility instead.  I was told several times that I would be released, but towards the end, there were all kinds of conditions. They became increasingly suspicious about whether I was acting as a spy or not — for example, checking on me if I were to go to the toilet before the meal was brought.

On the morning of October 23rd, I was brought blindfolded from the prison facility in one car and then I was transferred to another car. The person in that car was Turkish and was smoking cigarette. Of course, my captors don’t smoke. So at this moment, I realized what was happening and that Turkey was involved in my release. He also told me in English that I was safe.  We travelled around one hour until we came to a place just 200 meters from the immigration in Antakya. It was there that my blindfold was removed.

Afterwards, I was watching the news and they said that the operation in Turkey had  succeeded in achieving my release. I actually think that this handover did occur inside Syria. There was no gunfire. However, if I am right, even without the gunfire, going into Syria for such an operation is very risky. So I’m very thankful for the Turkish government and agencies for their support in that sense.    

I spent part of my captivity in a one-by-one meter room with only a worn out guidebook to Turkey that I was able to read over and over again…

After all that you’ve been through, what would you like to say to the public, especially to young people who may want to join these groups?

When I look back at the situation when I was being held captive under suspicion of being a spy, in a room only one meter in size, having people on either side 24 hours listening in my every move, even if I just took a movement to brush an ant from my face, sounds of people being beaten…these are clearly not Islamic acts which fit Islamic values. If people are thinking about these values or wanting to join on behalf of Islam to fulfill responsibilities of a Muslim, what is actually happening there is completely not related to Islam. What happened to me and what is happening there [in Syria]…this is abuse, this is torture, this is not something connected to Islamic belief or Islam. As the conflict is continuing, it’s a completely different situation to the everyday life there. Somehow the humanity is twisted; it becomes lost.          

Any message to the Turkish people?

At the prison facility, my captors didn’t want me to say that I was from Japan, or to use my real name “Jumpei” when I was speaking with the people held there, including Turkish people, because they could later inform the authorities. I was saying that I was Chinese and that my name was “Jumbo”.  If there is anyone in Turkey who stayed at that facility and remembers a Chinese Jumbo, please contact me!    

I spent part of my captivity in a one-by-one meter room with only a worn out guidebook to Turkey that I was able to read over and over again. I became really knowledgeable about all different parts of Turkey. So next time I really hope I can go there as tourist.

Questions and answers shortened and edited for clarity and conciseness.   

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